Cooking with fresh ingredients will change everything you thought you knew about making tomato sauce. Did for me, anyway. While I can make a primo (that’s awesome in Italian) sauce using canned, my first experiment with fresh tomatoes didn’t pan out quite the same. According to my family, it was too light, wouldn’t cling to the noodle, etcetera, etcetera…
Hmph. Some of us like it light. But if you’re aiming for authenticity, you’ll want to take heed–especially if one of your family members happens to be Italian. They know a thing or two about making tomato sauce and while they won’t share the details to save their life, I will. I’m only Italian by marriage so this gringa will sing!
36 ripe tomatoes, roma style — I used San Marzano variety
1/2 sweet onion, peeled and finely chopped or use whole
3 – 4 cloves garlic
2 TBSP olive oil
fresh herbs of your choice, finely chopped – basil, oregano, parsley (flat leaf Italian style)
tomato paste — for thicker sauce
2 TBSP olive oil – for smoother sauce
carrot, sugar, red wine, butter, cayenne, grated Parmesan cheese – optional
Now before you begin, understand this may take a while. Working with fresh tomatoes isn’t like canned. You have to peel and seed them first which is simple, but time-consuming. To make the task easier, blanch the tomatoes for about 30 seconds or until the skin begins to peel away, then immerse in ice water. (Some will core and remove stem before they blanch, others cut it out afterward.) Remove tomatoes from ice water and the skin will pull away with little or no effort.
Next up, push the seeds down the length of the tomato, removing the inner pulp right along with them. For the best sauce, you only want the meaty part of the flesh. Another way to accomplish this might be to cut the tomato in half, push out the seeds and pulp first and then blanch. It’s up to you which you prefer, but I find blanching second helps with seed removal while maintaining as much of the flesh as possible.
Okay, now you have your peeled and seeded tomatoes. Set them aside.
In a sauce pan, heat your olive oil on medium heat and saute your onion until soft, about 5-10 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds more or until fragrance is released (but no more!). Browned garlic will make your sauce bitter. Quickly add tomatoes and seasonings of choice and bring to a boil, then turn heat down and simmer on low heat for a minimum of 20 minutes and up to several hours. During the simmer process is when you add the tomato paste, if you prefer a thicker sauce.
For smoother sauce, use hand mixer (like a beverage mixer) to blend tomatoes while in sauce pan, or blend blanched tomatoes in food processor along with 2 TBSP olive oil prior to simmering.
Discard bay leaf before serving with pasta of your choice (cooked al dente, of course!)
Explanation: I simmered my sauce for only 20 minutes, and it finished on the light side. If you simmer longer and at a somewhat higher temperature, your sauce will reduce more (thicken) and your flavors will mingle longer–a good thing! However, even when I simmered mine for longer, I had to add tomato paste to thicken the sauce.
How do you make your own tomato paste?
Same as you do sauce–only after the first boil, simmer for an hour stirring frequently and then run tomatoes through wire mesh or colander to drain excess water. Next you’ll scrape remaining tomato flesh from screen and return to sauce pan to simmer on med-low heat for and hour or so more, or until it reaches the consistency of paste. But I warn you: do not venture far from the kitchen during “paste formation.” It can quickly change from rich and flavorful to burnt and dry. Ick. (My daughter and I learned this the hard way.) So stay present!
As to seasoning, I like to use oregano when making spaghetti sauce, fresh basil and/or parsley when keeping it simple, like a marinara. As an alternative to the chopped onions, place a whole (peeled) onion in your sauce during the simmering process. This way you can retain the sweet onion flavor without eating the actual vegetable. Remove it before serving.
Sauce too bitter? Try placing a whole (peeled) carrot in the sauce while simmering. This is said to draw out any bitterness from the tomatoes. For sweeter types, add a teaspoon or two of sugar to your sauce, or a 1/4 – 1/2 cup red wine. The wine will add nice flavor and depth, too. Many chefs like to add butter just prior to serving, as well as a pinch or two of cayenne for added kick! Like Parmesan? Go ahead a toss a spoonful or two in before serving.
Remember, tomato sauce recipes can be as varied as a women’s shoe closet. Try one on for size and if it doesn’t fit–don’t hesitate to change it up. Most important? Savor the process AND the outcome. Buon Appetito!